I wrote this novel in 2004, aged 23 and 24. It’s loosely based on my experiences of being a young jobbing sitcom writer, as I wrote for several BBC sitcoms from 2002 to 2008, though all the characters in Shitcom are completely fictional. I really enjoyed writing the book and was excited at the idea of it being a bestseller, as my literary agent at the time said he thought it would be.
In 2005, I was violently assaulted by my then-boyfriend while pregnant with his baby, leading me to undergo an unwanted termination. I shelved the novel while I recovered from the trauma. It stayed shelved.
In 2008, I gave up sitcom writing, tweaked Shitcom a little, then started writing columns for the Guardian and felt slightly horrified that I’d ever created a villain as worthy of cancellation as Andrew Jackson.
It’s now 2021. While looking for writing to send my Patreon supporters last year, I stumbled across Shitcom, read it again and loved it.
Yes, Andrew Jackson is an appalling character. Yes, there are scenes I wouldn’t write again today and words I wouldn’t use. But I hope people can tell the difference between an author’s own values and her fiction (especially easy when you read the ending).
So I’ve left this novel pretty much as it is, an artifact of its time which would probably never get traditionally published today. I hope you enjoy it.
MEET ME 1PM @ SOBRIQUET
SO I CAN TELL YOU THE GOOD
NEWS. CHEERS, AJ
I squeeze my mobile, wave it around jubilantly in the train carriage, then freeze in horror as I accidentally bash an old woman in the buttock.
She turns around accusingly, and I put on a nonchalant face so she won’t know who the mystery Pensioner Bum Pervert is. On any other day I’d have turned the same maroon as the train seats and mumbled apologies from Willesden to West Hampstead, but today the buttock-phone incident doesn’t faze me. Today, I can whack the elderly in the arse without batting an eyelid.
Because today I, Neil Diggle, am going to be asked to write another episode of The Series.
‘The Series? You write for that?’ People often stare at me when I tell them, trying to work out whether I’m lying.
Admittedly, I don’t look like the sort of bloke who writes for a prime-time sitcom. I look more like a homeless person trying to scrub up for a job interview, something no amount of Brylcreem or Oxy 10 is ever likely to change.
‘Yeah,’ I say.
‘Wow.’ Sometimes they do that ‘mouth turned down then back’ thing, to say ‘I’d never have thought it of you, but I’m impressed.’
The Series is seriously cool. It’s described as ‘a cult classic’ by critics, who always dub it things like The New Peep Show or Frasier if Frasier Worked on a Newspaper. But it’s not ‘cult’ as in ‘niche’ – it airs on BBC One and regularly gets six million viewers. The only criticism people ever make is that it’s not diverse enough – its characters are all white and middle-class.
‘So you write, like, episodes?’
‘Yeah.’ Only one so far, and they made me write eight drafts of it, but they must have liked it otherwise they wouldn’t be asking me to write another, right?
‘So does that mean you work with Andrew Jackson?’ they usually ask.
I want to tell them he’s not really that cool, but I don’t. I just nod again and try to look cool myself, which is hard with a pink face and orange hair, but I remind myself that writing for The Series overrides my appearance. If the Elephant Man had written for The Series he’d have had far more self-esteem.
‘What’s Andrew like?’ Everybody wants to know about Andrew. He’s a younger, better-looking Ricky Gervais; Jude Law with jokes. He’s the creator, lead writer and star of The Series, was voted Man of the Year by GQ, his girlfriend’s intelligent, nice and ridiculously attractive, and he’s still only 29. The only problem is, his entire conversation is limited to these four facts, and that’s when he’s not making bigoted comments.
‘He –’ I search for a disparaging but lighthearted phrase, then remember that Andrew is the reason I’m currently unembarrassed about being a Tube Buttock Pervert. He’s the reason I now have a mortgage instead of throwing five hundred pounds down the toilet each month, a telly writing career instead of my old job as Unbearable Boredom Manager at Soul-Destroying PLC, and clothes courtesy of Topman instead of Oxfam. Andrew gave me an episode, and he’s about to give me another. So by default,
‘He’s nice,’ I reply lamely.
‘Neil!’ Andrew waves expansively across the crowded restaurant, nearly elbowing the hangers-on next to him in the face.
This is a good sign. For the entirety of our relationship, Andrew has called me ‘Nigel’. When, a few weeks ago, I finally blurted out, ‘Sorry, it’s Neil,’ he shrugged and explained, ‘you look like a Nigel.’
Yes, I wanted to say. And you look like a wanker, but I don’t call you Wanker.
Then, when I mistakenly called him ‘Andy’, he stared at me like I’d just confessed to a love of granny porn. ‘And-rew’, he pronounced firmly, as though the ‘rew’ somehow conferred more status upon him and was the secret of his success.
But that’s all in the past. Now Andrew knows my name, possibly meaning I no longer look like a Nigel. I am a Neil, a Neil on first-name terms with the doyen of British sitcom, winding my way through producers and actors and faux-marble pillars to his table. He’s resplendent in chinos and polo shirt, sitting with his stockbroker public school mates Miff and Reph, posh blokes whose job is to agree with everything he says and laugh when he makes a joke. In return, they get to go everywhere he goes: strip clubs, mainly.
Andrew doesn’t acknowledge me when I sit down, preferring to bark into his mobile, ‘Have we got Miller on board? If we can secure him that’ll be fucking A. He owes me one, I put him in rehab when he was monged off his tits.’
Andrew says everyone at the BBC does coke, that’s why it’s based in White City. But I’ve never been offered anything at TV Centre except limp sandwiches, which is a relief as I know how to eat sandwiches. I have no idea how to do coke, and I definitely don’t have a platinum credit card to cut it with, just a NatWest debit card, which probably isn’t the height of hipness in telly circles.
And yet I’m sitting in Sobriquet, the gleaming, epileptically-lit Ivy of the television industry, watching the TV world go round. That’s Jonathan Ross in the corner, unmissable in a luminous pink suit, and behind that palm tree is Richard Curtis, gesturing wildly. I nod and smile at Miff and Reph, who ignore me. I glance at the wine list and feel slightly faint at the prices. Today’s news has come at the right time, because I’ve spent my episode fee and am completely skint again. I’ve cut up my credit card, so I only have the debit card, and I often just carry cash so I can’t overspend.
‘I don’t care, get him!’ Andrew barks into his Nokia X0. I know the exact model because Andrew told me. They’re not out in the UK yet apparently, Nokia just sent him a free prototype because he mentioned them in an interview.
The X0 gets banged down on the table as Andrew turns to face me.
‘So,’ he says, slapping my upper arm a little too hard, ‘how’s my favourite ginge?’
I wonder whether my competition for ‘favourite ginge’ is Chris Evans or Paul Kaye.
‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘Looking forward to going on location in two months.’
He shrugs. ‘I wouldn’t bother. It’s only three days in Wapping, then the sound stages at Shepperton. Rather boring I’m afraid.’
But I know it won’t be boring for me. I’ve been waiting to see a sitcom episode of mine being filmed for twenty-one years, since I was eight years old. I’m going to get to Wapping at 6am just to watch the crew set up. And the day Episode 8: ‘Shooting Fish’ of The Series Series 2 is shown on BBC One and my name appears on the screen… well, that’ll be the proudest moment of my life.
Miff and Reph stand up together. One of them flicks his cowlick nervously, the other fiddles with his cufflinks. ‘Got to get back to work, old chap,’ Reph brays. ‘See you tonight.’
Andrew waves a dismissive hand and the pair retreat. I glance down at my shoes and notice that they’re horribly scuffed and worn. Still, soon I’ll be able to afford a new pair.
‘Aanyway.’ Andrew flicks through the wine list, scanning ‘outrageously expensive’ and then ‘mind-bogglingly expensive’. ‘The reason I called you here is that some very exciting changes are taking place.’
I lean forward, then lean back again slightly in case he thinks I’m weird. I can feel my palms grow sticky and my heart speed up.
‘I,’ Andrew announces, ‘have just had my new show commissioned.’
‘Ace!’ He’ll definitely need someone else to concentrate on writing The Series then. Maybe he even wants to hand it over to me.
‘Isn’t it?’ He clicks his fingers, summoning a waiter who scurries over. ‘I’ll have the 1973 Brunello.’
I wonder if I’ll be allowed any, seeing as it comes in at two hundred and ten pounds a bottle.
‘So wow… two sitcoms on the go,’ I say, grinning.
Andrew frowns and fondles his phone. ‘No, only one sitcom.’
‘Oh.’ I ponder this. ‘So the new show’s not a sitcom.’
He eyes me as though I am a small, dim child. ‘No. The new show is a sitcom.’
‘Right.’ I laugh rather nervously, not having realised previously that Andrew, or indeed anybody, could be quite this bad at maths. ‘So that’s… two sitcoms?’
He raises his eyebrow and I wonder if I’ve missed a very large, embarrassingly obvious trick, like when my grandad used to search everywhere for his smelly yellow pipe and it was right there, clamped between his stained false teeth. I mentally run through the options, but nothing changes: the new show is a sitcom, and so is The Series. Unless of course the latter has become so cool it’s transcended its sitcom status to become merely godlike, but I don’t think even Andrew is quite this wanky.
I acquiesce. ‘Oh, I see.’
I don’t see at all, but Andrew must think I do, because he nods. And then he says the most horrible phrase I’ve ever heard in my life:
‘The Series – schwiip.’
And as he says ‘schwiip’, he draws his finger across his throat.
Now, Andrew’s a joker. He’s the sort of bloke who’ll play-wrestle you ‘for fun’ though it really hurts, fill your hair conditioner up with hair removal cream, or call up pretending to be the Iranian embassy informing you that there’s a fatwa on your head. None of his jokes are particularly funny, and this latest statement is the least funny of the lot, but it’s just a joke. Isn’t it?
I stare at him weakly. ‘Really?’
Any moment now he’s going to burst out laughing in my face, shake his hand to make that clicking noise Ali G used to do and I can’t do, and yell, ‘Had you there!’
But he doesn’t. He just says, ‘Yep.’
The waiter comes up and pours a taste of wine for Andrew. He takes a sip, swills it round his mouth and nods.
‘You’ve got to cut shows at their peak. Fawlty only had two series’, so did The Office.’
The remote chance that this is still a joke slowly ebbs away. ‘But look at John Sullivan,’ I protest. ‘Only Fools has gone on forever, and –’
‘They should have killed it long ago,’ he interjects. ‘It’s just embarrassing. You’ve got to ask yourself, “Where else can I take this?” In an artistically valid way, of course. You don’t want to push boundaries too far and lose your audience.’
‘But…’ But it is – it was – The Series. The best show on telly in 2004; the misadventures of an obituary writer who was scared of death. It could have been the next Frasier or Curb Your Enthusiasm, distinguished by its dry British wit, surrealism and a host of unseemly characters. And now it’s being killed for no reason, a bit like a parent dumping their four-year-old child in an uninhabited bit of the Amazon forest with the explanation, ‘Well, it’ll only grow up to disappoint the world’.
‘Don’t you think… all good sitcoms need time to get going?’
Wrong. ‘It has fucking got going! It’s the biggest sitcom in Britain!’ Andrew practically jumps up and down in his velvet seat. ‘It can’t get any bigger, the only way it can go is down. And I don’t want to see it go down.’
I nod frantically. ‘Sorry, sorry.’
He breathes deeply and punches my arm again. ‘It’s okay Nige. We all say stupid things sometimes.’
I’ve clearly been relegated to Nige again, but have more worrying things to think about. No Series equals no job, but that can’t be the good news, so…
‘The new sitcom,’ I say brightly.
‘Yeah.’ He drains his glass. ‘It’s the strongest idea I’ve had in ages. Can’t wait to get stuck in. Just thought you should be among the first to know it’s been commissioned.’
‘Thanks a lot.’
I wait for him to say, ‘Because I want you to help me write it’.
He doesn’t, so I prompt him. ‘So you’ll be needing writers?’
Writing for another show will be brilliant. I’ll have not one, but two primetime sitcom credits to my name, proving that being put on The Series wasn’t a fluke. Maybe I’ll even be able to get some interest in my own format ideas.
Andrew looks a bit confused, then smiles. ‘It’s only a six-ep series. I think I can manage.’
And suddenly everything falls down inside me and becomes hazy. The clink of glasses fades, the laser lights swirl and the palm trees blur into the wall. I feel a deep, hollow ache, and my stomach rises towards my mouth.
I close my eyes and suddenly I’m back home in Riplington, aged eight, and my Mum is saying, ‘Because you helped your sister with her painting, you can stay up and watch TV for a bit.’
And there’s a funny tall man with a moustache on the telly, and my mum’s laughing, and I’m watching her wiping her eyes and wondering if she’s sad or happy. Then I start to laugh too, even though I don’t understand why, and we keep setting each other off. Mum’s eyes go crinkly when she laughs, and her hair bounces round her face, and when she does a Basil impression it sounds nothing like him, which makes it even funnier.
If she were here today, she’d be saying, ‘Buck up Neil, you can get through this. There are hundreds of other shows you could write for. This isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.’
But deep down I know it is the very end.
So that’s it, that’s the ‘good news’. I’m being sacked, while Andrew’s going on to even bigger things. I now have the tempting options of having my flat repossessed, crawling back to my old job, or going back to live with Dad and having a nervous breakdown; hearing my friends say, ‘Well, at least you had the experience,’ or keeping up a façade of lies forever. I’m on the verge of thirty and I have one episode of a soon-to-be-defunct sitcom to show for it.
The weird thing is, I can’t even bring myself to feel angry towards Andrew. A small voice in my mind is saying, ‘Come on Diggle, you knew it was too good to be true. You’re not one of life’s winners. Just look at you.’
Somewhere in the ether, Andrew is bleating, ‘As soon as I thought of the idea, I knew. I just knew. It’s these two guys, right – one’s a top High Court judge and the other’s a working-class window cleaner, and they swap bodies… so much scope, so original!’
I can’t be bothered to tell him it’s a lousy idea, that it’s been done at least twenty times with different films, that All of Me and Freaky Friday and countless others have exhausted the genre. Because Andrew doesn’t care what I think, because it’s not in my best interests to tell him, and because, knowing him, he’ll make it work.
‘I think people are willing to suspend disbelief,’ he says, fuzzy in the distance. ‘For example, take My Hero.’
‘I hated My Hero,’ I mumble. He doesn’t hear me. Instead he rambles on, and I crawl back into my head. I don’t know what I’ve ordered or what I’m spooning numbly into my mouth, whether that thing on my plate is a prawn or a praying mantis. I don’t know how I’ve managed to drink half the bottle of wine in the past two minutes. I just know that I want to lie down for a very long time.
Suddenly, there’s a loud squawking noise. I’m wondering whether it’s a parrot or a claxon, when two girls descend on Andrew. They’re both dressed in tiny skirts and boob tubes, teetering on platform heels with their hoop earrings and ankle chains clanking like Marley’s ghost.
‘Oh my God, are you Andrew Jackson?!’ one squeals. She’s dark-haired, and attractive in a rough sort of way, while her red-headed friend is just rough. Still, they’re both female, and Andrew could probably have both of them at the same time. I try to work out how many years ago I last had sex.
A waiter comes up and ahems, raising an eyebrow. ‘Sir, if these… young ladies are bothering you, I can have them ejected?’ He sounds hopeful.
‘No, it’s fine,’ Andrew snaps. The waiter leaves. ‘And yes, I am Andrew Jackson,’ he tells the girl smoothly.
She looks like she’s about to hyperventilate. ‘Will you… will you…’
Go out with me? Marry me? It’s building up to be a big question.
‘… will you sign my arse?’ She produces what looks like an indelible marker pen. She’s clearly thought this through.
The waiter reappears with the bill, looking like he wants to get rid of us.
‘Shit,’ says Andrew, busy in the act of arse-signing. ‘I think I’ve forgotten my wallet. Get this for me, would you Nige?’
I want to yell, ‘No And-rew, I wouldn’t! Because it’s three hundred and eighty quid, I’m four grand overdrawn, and because thanks to you I have no future source of income!’
Instead, I slowly flip my debit card onto the silver tray.
‘I’m never washing my arse again!’ chirps the brunette, still bent double. This statement strikes me as faintly disgusting, and I worry that it might be true.
I look up at the red-haired girl, who is standing looking bored by the side. I know how it feels to be the ugly ginger friend. But through my drink-induced fug, she doesn’t look that unappealing, and I realise I have nothing left to lose.
‘I’ll sign your arse if you like,’ I offer. Maybe she’ll sleep with me in the hope that it’ll get her closer to Andrew. I could get laid for the first time in three years.
She looks revolted. ‘Who are you?’
‘Him?’ Andrew asks, clipping the lid back on the marker. ‘He’s nobody.’
What the bloody hell is that?
Oh. Damn door buzzer. Better get up. Bloody hell, did I really fuck that? That piggy thing? Ugh. Mind you, all women look vile in the mornings. If you ask me, they have a moral obligation to scuttle off to the bathroom before you wake up and trowel on all that stuff which makes them look vaguely acceptable. The alternative makes you wish you were permanently drunk.
The security monitor’s showing some mongoloid delivery boy. I turn off the system, unbolt the door and the spazzchav says, ‘You Andrew Jackson?’ Poor cunt. Can’t his mummy afford a telly?
I nod wearily, and the idiot hands me a package and says, ‘This is from McKenzie.’
Ah. Very good. I redo security, scoop up a mountain of post from the doormat and stagger up the stairs. If you can gauge your fame from your level of mail, mine’s fucking stratospheric. Shame most of it’s shit.
I really love The Series and I’ve heard a rumour that there aren’t going to be any more episodes. Please tell me this isn’t true because I don’t think I could live without my weekly fix!
Well then Sandra, you’re just going to have to die. Dappy bitch. I should phone Gervais, ask him how he dealt with it between The Office and Extras, though perhaps not: I don’t think he’s enjoying having his crown stolen.
It’s stupid. What do people expect you to do, go on producing one programme for the rest of your career, churning out endless variations on the same old hack theme? Fucking dull for me, and if I’m not enjoying it, it’ll soon show. But no: the Great British Public want the same bread and circuses week after week. Give them a half-decent sitcom and they’ll hold onto it like it’s a baby in a hurricane.
I sift through the other post. Payment slip… cheque… bloody hell, payment slip for £82,000 for the DVD! Thank fuck we rush-released it in time for Christmas. Sometimes I look at my bank statements and think, ‘what am I supposed to do with all that?’ Then I remember the price of good gak.
‘Support the Sudan crisis!’ Lucy squawks. Why should I? What have the Sudanese ever done for me? Besides, charity just cultivates a dependence culture. It was on the news last night: ‘Aid to Sudan has proved scandalously ineffective’. I just don’t do scandalously ineffective.
I hate most charity work too, though I don’t mind the stuff with kids, as long as it only takes a few minutes. I mean, this sort of charity thing is okay:
Dear Mr Jackson,
Adam is nine years old and suffering from leukemia. He’s a very big fan of yours and we wondered if it might be possible for you to visit him here at Great Ormond Street Hospital? It would really make his day. I’d be very grateful if you could call me on (020) 7555 5460 to let me know.
Yours with thanks,
The DreamKidz Foundation
You go along, give him a cuddle and a Series baseball cap to hide his slaphead, smile for the paps and improve your public image ratings. Can’t be fucked right now though.
I screw the toss-sheet into a ball, throw it at the bin and miss. We really need a new cleaner; I sacked the other one because she stole my Rolex. Felt a bit shit when I found it later behind the breadbin, but it wouldn’t have worked anyway – she couldn’t understand a word I was saying. Seb at MTV has a Portuguese one who understands basic English; I think that’s the way to go. Someone with a bit of Catholic luggage; there’s nothing like religion to make simple people dependable.
Ah, another package of pills. Lucy makes ugly snorty noises whenever I take them. ‘You’re fine as you are,’ she bleats. ‘You shouldn’t buy stuff off spam mail. And they don’t work anyway.’
So what if they don’t? Stupid ungrateful cow. It’s for her benefit, it can’t hurt, and they might even have a placebo effect. I’m doing the visualisation exercises too, which make me feel like a spacker, but it’ll be worth it. The meditation isn’t going very well though: I try to imagine the perfect result, but Dave Cross’s face keeps floating in.
Fucking Cross. He’s a windowlicking little fairy, and the one person who’s trying to hold up the new project, which is unfortunate as he’s Head of Comedy.
‘I’m just not sure whether it’s the right move for you now,’ he keeps droning on. ‘You’ve made your name with a very grounded piece, and fans of The Series are going to expect something in a similar vein. Doubled Up seems like too much of a departure from your signature style.’
So? So fucking what? The people don’t know what they want, it’s up to me to tell them! Jesus, the man’s an idiot. If I had a dartboard his face would be on it, but I don’t because darts is for fat working-class people.
He commissions so much shit as well, and yet he still manages to strut around looking pleased with himself. If I were him I’d issue a grovelling apology to the nation before blowing my brains out, but not Dave. ‘I think British comedy’s in great shape,’ he croons. He’d probably swear that Dawn French was in great shape too if it’d help him keep his job.
The stupid thing is, the overpaid ponce has never written anything in his life. He’s done nothing but criticise other people’s work.
‘The Series doesn’t have any black people.’
So? England hardly has any black people. Two per cent to be precise; that doesn’t even warrant us including a fucking black dwarf.
‘There are only two women in The Series, and they both have menial jobs.’
And? Most women do have menial jobs. Pretending they don’t in a sitcom isn’t going to change that, it’s just going to look unrealistic. I show women having kids and drying the dishes and they act as though I’ve condemned the entire sex to whoredom. Besides, decent women do want kids, eventually. Otherwise they carry on like that thing in my bed until people can’t even look them in the face anymore.
‘Do you think you could make The Series’ characters slightly more… likeable, Andrew? It’s just… they all seem so negative and crabby.’
Fuck off! Was Basil Fawlty likeable? Was Alf Garnett the sort of bloke you’d want to introduce to your Mum? But they were both fucking funny, and that’s all that matters. People don’t watch sitcoms to relate to the characters, they watch them to laugh and forget about their shitty bloody lives for twenty-six minutes. Are happy well-balanced characters funny? Are they fuck! I don’t want my characters to be drippy PC wankers like Cross.
Of course, he and his useless cronies shut up once The Series’ ratings hit eight million. They’ll shut their fat Fairtrade-filled gobs again when Doubled Up is a hit. Till then, I suppose I’ll have to put up with their clueless witterings.
Last two things in the post are the usual heart-shaped envelope (goes in the police file) and my BAFTA invites. I pop a couple of pills, examine my knob, then crawl back into bed.
Poor Diggle. I can never remember whether his name’s Neville or Nigel, but he’s a fucking shit writer, if a decent enough chap. We put him on the show as a… well, I suppose you could call it a gift. He was such a huge fan, sending in that arselicking little letter with his samples, gushing:
I have seen every single episode of The Series and can
quote them all… I believe it is the modern-day Python…
since I was eight years old I have wanted to be a sitcom writer…
it would be an honour and a privilege to work with you.
John said, ‘Why not? Dave’s been pushing us to use a writer from Northern and Exposed for ages, and we can always write out his stuff if it’s shit.’ Which of course it was. The chap’s only done late-night Radio 1 skits in the past for fuck’s sake, it was like asking a McDonald’s trainee to rustle up some foie gras. Still, we had fun with him. He’s so nervous and stuttery and eager to please, you could tell him to jump off East Tower and he’d probably give it a go.
I could tell he was taken by my idea today. I think it stunned him into silence, though he did say something along the lines of ‘It’ll be better than My Hero’, which of course it will. He even begged me to let him write for it, which was flattering if rather deluded. I wish I could do something for him, I really do. I’ve started to feel all fraternal about him. It’s no good though – if you don’t have it then you just don’t fucking have it. Perhaps I should ask him to the awards ceremony next week. You never know, he might bump into someone who needs a runner. Give him a softer landing. Yes, I’ll get Eloise to send him a couple of invites.
Now, I really have to get this slapper out of my bed before Lucy gets home. The sex was great, but the writing on her arse was rather off-putting.